The death of Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi Arabia offers a terrible temptation to the United States: We can indulge our outrage at the expense of our interests. We have few good options, but giving in to that temptation would be the worst thing to do.
Everyone involved in this scandal has performed poorly, if not disgracefully. Saudi Arabia has been caught lying about Khashoggi’s death. President Donald Trump has sided both with and against the Saudis, thereby earning brickbats from all sides. Turkey pretends to care about Khashoggi but imprisons more journalists than any other nation.
And then there is Khashoggi himself. It’s awkward to speak ill of the dead, but Khashoggi’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood was not a mere youthful flirtation. Just a year ago, he called on the Saudi leadership to cooperate with them, and to lead a unified Arab world to support the Palestinians in their fight against Israel. That doesn’t justify killing him.
Of the region’s four major Muslim powers, Turkey has slid away from the West, Egypt just signed a strategic partnership with Russia, and the Islamic Republic of Iran has hated the United States since 1979. That leaves only Saudi Arabia as a possible U.S. ally.
Which is why Khashoggi’s death has caused such a stir. Revealingly, at about the same time as the writer disappeared, France disrupted an Iranian bomb plot that would have killed tens, if not hundreds, of people in Paris. And yet it’s Khashoggi’s killing that has grabbed the headlines.
That’s because Khashoggi isn’t just a victim; he’s a proxy for a debate about U.S. policy. Obama-era veterans from Ben Rhodes to Michael McFaul have argued that Khashoggi’s death proves that President Barack Obama’s desire to sidle up to Iran at the expense of the Saudis was correct.
This is nonsense. Obama’s policy isn’t the answer, it’s a significant part of the problem. As I have written in this column before, most U.S. alliances are as much about restraining our allies as they are about deterring our enemies. When Obama tilted toward Tehran, he gave Saudi Arabia a reason to start writing its own insurance policy against Iran, its regional enemy.
Predictably, the Saudis have made a mess of it. They wanted to secure their flanks, but their war in Yemen is endless and profitless, and their blockade of Qatar, though driven by understandable concern over Iranian influence, has achieved little.
At home, the regime’s so-called drive against corruption — like the parallel ones in Russia and China — is about centralizing power by eliminating opponents. The killing of Khashoggi, whether it was deliberate or a panicked bungle, is part of that drive — and it has backfired spectacularly.
The problem for the United States is that Saudi behavior is destructive. But leaving the Saudis to go it alone would merely be more of the same policy that got us where we are today. Since 2011, when most U.S. forces left Iraq, declining U.S. influence has paralleled rising regional violence — and Iranian power.
That violence isn’t our fault — but given how rotten the regimes in the region are, we shouldn’t have expected them to behave any better. Kicking Saudi Arabia to the curb now is tempting, but it will only quicken the descent by making it clear to the Saudis that they’re on their own against the Iranians.
Breaking this spiral won’t be easy. It may not be possible. Yet we have to try to convince the Saudis that their actions, far from enhancing their security, are undermining it. Ironically, Khashoggi was right about that; the reaction to his death is proof of it. Our response to it should be guided not by self-righteous outrage, but by our interest in talking the Saudis down from their ledge.
This piece originally appeared in Newsday